In the Steubenville rape trials, the social and digital media trail proved that many boys were complicit in the rapes of Jane Doe–not just the two who were found guilty. Chillingly, these boys seem like they could be anyone’s son. As a result, today, many parents are asking: How can I raise my boy the right way–to become a young man who will neither rape nor be a casual bystander to rape?
It’s an important question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. The Steubenville boys’ families likely thought they were doing a great job raising their sons. But something is wrong with our society: girls are so sexualized and dehumanized by our culture that unless it is directly and regularly addressed at home, boys can easily internalize the attitude that girls are sub-human–sex objects, rather than respectable subjects. And as the Steubenville case shows, once this attitude is internalized, boys think it’s not raping girls that is the problem, but rather getting caught. Consider even the judge’s words, which according to an AP report betrayed this kind of perspective:
In sentencing the boys, Lipps urged parents and others “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media so prevalent today and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends.”
Talk about being tone-deaf! As the mother of two sons, this is not my take-away from the case. The issue is not how the Steubenville rapists and their peers recorded their criminal actions on social media and therefore were caught, found guilty, and sentenced for their crimes. It’s that they raped in the first place.
Even CNN committed a major gaffe in their reporting on the sentencing, focusing not on the victim’s vindication and the possible outcomes for her, but rather on how difficult it was to watch the young rapists’ lives falling apart. According to The Huffington Post’s report on CNN’s coverage,
The effects of the rape on the victim seemed to be an afterthought: “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.”
The victim shouldn’t be an afterthought in the media coverage. Her vindication despite our broken culture of rape, her prognosis for a recovery from her trauma, and the possible consequences she and her family may face in their small town as they move forward should be central to the coverage.
With a culture that has such a messed-up attitude towards rape that even the judge and CNN are making major missteps, how do we answer the question posed earlier? How do we raise our boys into young men who will neither rape nor be casual bystanders to rape–who understand both that “no means no” and, more importantly, that consent requires an enthusiastic “yes”?
The answer is to begin teaching boys about two concepts–consent and respect–from an early age, in age-appropriate ways.
For example, my four-year-old son loves to hug and kiss his friends. He is sweet and affectionate, and when he first sees a friend or when it’s time to say goodbye, he wants nothing more but to wrap his arms around that friend and give him or her a big kiss.
Sometimes, his friends reciprocate, but sometimes, they clearly don’t want the physical contact. So, since about the time when he turned four years old, and he seemed old enough to understand, we’ve told him that he needs to ask his friends for permission first. We taught him to ask, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?” We’ve also told him he needs to respect their answers, even if it’s disappointing, and I’m glad to see that this is now his usual approach. He gets their consent.
Then, there’s the matter of respect. When my son was three and a half, he became interested in wearing nail polish on his toenails and fingernails after seeing me get a summertime mani-pedi. I agreed to paint his nails, but before sending him off to preschool, I prepared him for the possibility of pushback from his friends or even his teachers. “Some people at school might not like your nails,” I warned him. “But you like them, right?”
Admiring his shiny blue nail polish, he told me, “I really do!”
“So,” I coached him, “if anybody says they don’t like your fingernails, you tell them: ‘It’s MY body!’ Because it’s your body, and you get to decide what happens to it. No one else does. Can we practice? I will pretend to be another kid who doesn’t like your nails, and you can tell me, ‘It’s MY body!’ Okay?”
A few practice scenarios later, and he was great at saying, “It’s MY body!” as a confident response to comments that disrespected his right to make decisions about his own body.
This was a great lesson for him to learn, because a few months later, when we set the rule that he needs to ask his friends for permission before hugging and kissing them, this helped us to foster an empathetic perspective. We were able to explain: “It’s HIS [or HER] body, and he [or she] doesn’t want you to hug and kiss right now. So you have to respect his [or her] wishes.”
All this is helpful in the present. I’m glad my preschooler has a basic, age-appropriate understanding of respect and consent, even if he doesn’t know those words yet. Everything we do now paves the way for future conversations, and I know that as he approaches adolescence, it will be easier for us to discuss consent and respect with him.
Since the broader culture gives such terribly mixed messages to our boys, I want to make it clear: consent and respect are not options. They’re necessities.